Rum, Gambling, and Showgirls: Six Historic Entertainment Venues in Havana, Cuba
Havana, my hometown, is a city of many faces. Walk along its streets and you can read the history of a Spanish port town, a colonial sugar outpost, a young republic with monumental aspirations, and a cosmopolitan capital with North American influences.
For me, one of the most alluring ways to see Havana is through its bars, hotels, and other historic entertainment venues, where locals and tourists used to drink, gamble, and listen to music. There are dozens of these places scattered throughout the city. Below is a selection of a few favorites.
Jardines de la Tropical
Near Calzada de Puentes Grandes (look for signs)
Architect: Ramón Magriña, 1906
Los Jardines de la Tropical, or Tropical Beer Gardens, is an outdoor Art Nouveau beer hall built by what was once Cuba’s largest brewery. Tucked into tangled gardens along Havana’s Almendares River, this site is an entertainment park for adults, unlike any other in Cuba. There are grotto bars and gazebos made of textured concrete, a dance pavilion held up by thickly textured tree trunks and decorated with huge 8-legged starfish. In 1929 a Moorish-style palace was added, and covered in calligraphic decoration. This site is a little difficult to find, but well worth the effort. Best of all, beer is still served and private tours are available. I recommend going with a really savvy driver who knows Havana.
Trocadero #55 e/ Zulueta y Prado
Architect: Arellano y Mendozaon, 1908; Schultz and Weaver, 1923
On January 16, 1920, when Prohibition went into effect in the United States, a wave of alcohol-driven American tourism descended upon Havana. The main venue for this rollicking party was the Sevilla-Biltmore, a 1908 Moorish-style hotel that was renovated in the ‘20s with a tower by the American firm that designed the Waldorf Astoria. This hotel’s history reads like a Who’s Who of American high society in the 1920s. Stop off for a drink in the Sevilla lobby bar and you’ll soon be picturing the likes of Enrico Caruso and Josephine Baker downing Cuba Libres and daiquiris in Gatsby-era finery. Afterwards, take the elevator to the rooftop salon for one of the best 360-degree views of Havana.
Monserrate No. 261 between Empedrado y San Juan de Dios
Architects: Esteban Rodríguez Castells and José Menéndez, 1930
Before 1959, Cuba’s largest and most famous corporation was Bacardí, producer of the world’s smoothest rum under its trademark secret recipe. Originally founded in a Santiago de Cuba distillery that had fruit bats in the rafters, the firm’s 1930s Art Deco skyscraper on the edge of Old Havana is crowned by a bronze bat with outstretched wings. The Bacardi tower is considered the best example of tropical Art Deco, and its glazed terracotta facade is one of the most beautiful sites in the city. The mezzanine bar once offered free tastings of company brands, but it’s closed now for renovations. Great rum drinks can be had at the nearby Hotel Plaza rooftop, which has the best close-up view of the terra cotta facade.
Calle 21 y O Vedado, Plaza
Architect: McKim, Mead and White, 1930
Set high on a natural bluff that overlooks the Malécon and the Straits of Florida, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is Havana’s most prominent building. Since its opening in 1930, this Spanish Mediterranean resort has been a favorite hangout for the chic and glamorous. It was also the site of the December 1946 Havana Conference, a weeklong mob summit organized by Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky where Frank Sinatra provided the entertainment. The hotel’s history, on display in the lobby-level bar, includes photos and memorabilia from Jake and Meyer Lansky, who ran the hotel’s casino from 1956-58.
Avenida 72 A y 41 Marianao, La Habana
Architect: Max Borges Recio, 1952-54
1950s Havana was famous for its glitzy cabarets with star-studded shows and luxurious casinos. Among these top tier clubs, Tropicana was by far the most famous internationally and most beloved locally. It is also the only 1950s nightclub that survived revolutionary reforms and continued to be maintained and used as a place to host dignitaries from the Soviet bloc throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
In my book Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub, I describe seeing Tropicana for the first time while on a Cuba trip with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was a near-hallucinatory experience. Picture the most daring Modernist buildings you can imagine tucked into a tropical jungle setting. Designed by a Cuban educated at Georgia Tech and Harvard, these thin-shell concrete and glass structures include the indoor nightclub, Arcos de Cristal; an outdoor performance space Bajo las Estrellas; and a glass-walled casino that bore the name of mobster Lefty Clark. Tropicana hosted everyone who went to Cuba in the 1950s—from Liberace, who mamboed onstage and Nat King Cole, who recorded an album with the Tropicana band. Open for business nightly.
Paseo y Malecón #243 Vedado
Architect: Igor Polevitzky, 1957
The Habana Riviera was one of the last swanky hotel-casinos to be built before the Revolution, and the first centrally air-conditioned building in Cuba. Financed by Meyer Lansky, the oceanfront resort opened in December 1957 with a show starring Ginger Rogers, exactly one year before Fidel Castro shut down gambling and expropriated private property. Designed by a Miami Beach architect, the Riviera is flagrantly Hollywood Regency in style, a product of its designer Albert Parvin. Miraculously, the building retains most of its original decorative features, including mosaics, sculptures, murals, terrazzo floors, and period furniture. Presently undergoing renovation, the hotel remains open and serves a surprisingly good and reasonably priced lunch in the café.
Rosa Lowinger is an architectural conservator and writer. The principal at RLA Conservation of Art & Architecture, Inc., she is the author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub, and co-curator of the 2016 exhibit at the Wolfsonian Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction. She was born in Havana and lives in Miami and Los Angeles.